Female Rabbis and the Definition of Orthodoxy: Cutting to the Core with Rabbi Ysoscher Katz


avrohom gordimerBy Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

In Listening to Ecclesiastes, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz dismisses in the course of six sentences the rulings and rationales issued against the ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis. Yes, the rulings of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, and all other preeminent Torah authorities — as well as the axioms of Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik that decisively preclude the ordination of women — are summarily rejected by Rabbi Katz. Rabbi Katz also rejects outright the application of Mesorah  (binding tradition — but please see here and here), and insists that it is clear that the ordination of women is permissible and should be instead subject to mere advisement and policy discussion. (Please also see here regarding the Rabbinical Council of America resolution about women rabbis and for further elaboration on the halachic issues involved.)

I respect Rabbi Katz’ right to his arguments, and they in fact unintendedly bring this entire issue to a head — for the real and deeper question here is, What is Orthodox Judaism?

Rabbi Katz presents a practice, the ordination of women, which he feels must be considered inherently “kosher” and Orthodox due to his claim that there is no halachic or other impediment. In other words, that which is technically permitted is Orthodox, and the only question then becomes one of communal policy — but we dare not treat or label the matter under discussion as illegitimate or non-Orthodox.

This approach inevitably means that the first Reform Temple in Germany, the Seesen Temple of Israel Jacobson, which opened in 1810 and featured a large bell, a pipe organ and prayers in German, was also Orthodox. Jacobson commissioned scholars to pen responsa defending the halachic bases for the temple’s practices, and these responsa were in fact quite sound on purely technical grounds: one may violate double-layered rabbinic prohibitions for the sake of a mitzvah — hence were a bell and an organ, operated on the Sabbath by a non-Jew, permissible for the sake of announcing and accompanying prayer; the Talmud allows prayer in the vernacular — therefore was there no problem of conducting prayer in German. Yet the generation’s preeminent rabbinic authorities deemed the temple non-Orthodox. They did not consider the temple Orthodox and propose further policy discussion — they instead labeled the temple Reform.

Rabbi Katz’ approach would also quite arguably reckon the early Conservative movement to have been fully Orthodox, as the movement’s practices were generally consistent with Halacha on a technical basis, notwithstanding some deviation in purely non-halachic areas, and its controversial stance toward Mosaic Revelation/Torah Authorship, allowing for a fluid or non-literal understanding thereof, has been effectively endorsed by at least one leading Open Orthodox rabbinic scholar. Thus, using Rabbi Katz’s technical halachic yardstick, early Reform and Conservative Judaism could have actually been considered Orthodox; departure from Mesorah is not a problem.

But we know that this is all silly, and Rabbi Katz will be the first one to agree. For in truth, cutting to the core of the issue, the defining feature of Orthodoxy is submission to Chachmei Ha-Mesorah and Gedolei Ha-Dor — the generation’s top-tier, preeminent rabbinic authorities — and perpetuating their approach to Torah, be they names such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Aharon Kotler or Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik. A Judaism that lacks the imprimatur of the generation’s preeminent authorities and works from without their approach is not Orthodox, irrespective of compliance with halachic technicalities.

One of Open Orthodoxy’s senior scholars has opined that an “Orthodox” form of gay marriage may be possible:

(Rabbi Dr. Daniel) Sperber thinks there may be a way around this. “The problem is with the word ‘marriage’, he notes. “Perhaps they can call it something else, like a ‘partnership.’”

In conformity with Mesorah? No. Technically valid? Maybe. Orthodox? No way.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik so eloquently articulated:

First, we must pursue the truth and nothing else but the truth. However, the truth in Talmud Torah can be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is obtained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed down from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the Chachmei Ha-Mesorah. It’s ridiculous to say “I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn’t know, the Ketzos didn’t know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge; I’ve discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new.” It’s ridiculous! One has to join the ranks of the Chachmei Mesorah, Chazal, Rishonim, Gedolei Acharonim, and must not try to rationalize from without the Chukei Ha-Torah, and judge. We must not judge Chukim U’mishpatim in terms of a secular system of values.

Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psycholigism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of Torah and Mesorah and it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism. No matter how good the intentions are of the person who is suggesting them.

Second, we must not yield — I mean emotionally, it is very important — we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm — usually it is a transient and passing charm — of modern political and ideological sevaros (logic). I say not only not to compromise — certainly not to compromise — but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex. The thought should never occur that it is important to cooperate just a little bit with the modern trend or with the secular, modern philosophy. In my opinion, Yahadus (Judaism) does not have to apologize either to the modern woman or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism. There is no need for apology — we should have pride in our Mesorah, in our heritage.  And of course, certainly it goes without saying one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends, and one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient ways of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.

A thought. Kabbalas ol malchus shamayim (acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven) — which is an identical act with Talmud Torah — requires of us to revere and to love and to admire the words of the Chachmei Ha-Mesorah…

This article first appeared at Times of Israel and is published here with the author’s permission.

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. R’ Avraham, don’t forget to mention that Chaza”l say clearly that a woman’s leadership, and even as great as דבורה, is only desired when there’s no one else – OPENLY in our sages words:
    ילקוט שמעוני שופטים – פרק ד – רמז מב
    רבי ברכיה אומר ד’ (ב) מיללין תלתא בעלמא וחדא באתתא. חשיך חייא דבעי למיתא. חשיך גוברא דבעי ללחלשא. חשיך פתיחא דבעי לסמיא. חשיך דרא דאיתתא דבריייתא, ודבורה אשה נביאה